FAIRBANKS — The 1961 Miss Eskimo Indian Olympics Queen, Thelma Ross Antila, recalls being pushed onto the stage for the bathing suit competition held 50 years ago during the first Miss WEIO competition.
“I was terrified,” she recalled. “We had to wear a bathing suit. I had never ever shown my body. That was how we were raised.”
Thelma was just 15 when she competed as Miss Fairbanks Native Association. “It was my sister Emily’s doing,” said Antila, who now resides in Soldotna.
“She was always the one to encourage me to do things. She helped me get through it. I was scared throughout the whole thing, but it is pretty neat when I look back on it now.”
By the end of the decade, the Miss WEIO competition changed from a beauty contest to reflect the culture of the Native peoples of Alaska.
The changes came from within, said Daphne Rylander Gustafson, the 1962 Miss WEIO queen who was involved in redirecting the purpose of the event, which continues today — the 50th anniversary of the World Eskimo Indian Olympics.
Gustafson was Miss Nome when she traveled to Fairbanks during the summer of 1962, and knew little of what the contest was about.
Back then, WEIO was sponsored by the Fairbanks Chamber of Commerce and organized by the employees of Wien Airways, and the Miss WEIO contest was modeled after beauty pageants. There were swimsuit and evening gown segments, but no performance or talent parts.
Gustafson recalls the 1962 pageant being held in Memorial Park (later renamed Growden Memorial Park), and walking around in swimsuits and evening gowns on a truck bed.
“It was outrageous. It was awkward and uncomfortable. Some of us hadn’t been in a bathing suit very often in our lives. It didn’t seem to fit with the event that I envisioned it to be,” she said.
However, Gustafson also recalls the positive aspects of the well-chaperoned program.
It was the 17-year-old’s first visit to a “big city” and compared to mostly treeless Nome where she was raised, she was impressed with the Interior.
“I remember the trees and hedges and lawns — the landscape was so different,” she said.
“It was just a lot of fun and an interesting experience. I remember visiting the various shops here and receiving such lovely gifts, and spending time at the Co-op.”
Six years later, after graduating from Washington State University and marrying, Gustafson returned to Fairbanks, where she still lives. She soon joined a WEIO pageant planning group to begin changing the queen competition into a more appropriate event — dropping the gown and bathing suit segments of the competition.
“We certainly worked hard to make it more reflective of our Native culture rather than a superficial, artificial pageant. It was something that needed to reflect the culture of the people,” said Gustafson, who served on the WEIO board of directors for many years and is an honorary lifetime board member.
Today, Miss WEIO contestants must present a talent of their choosing and a description of the Native regalia they wear for the competition. They are judged in three categories: private personal interviews, the talent presentations and an impromptu question session about WEIO and Native issues.
Throughout the year, the Miss WEIO queen acts as a Native ambassador in a variety of capacities.
During the past half century, more than 50 young women have been crowned Miss World Eskimo Indian Olympics. A number of the queens have gone on to other pageants such as Miss Alaska USA and Native American competitions Outside.
As winners in other pageants, some WEIO queens have had to relinquish their title to the first runner up in the WEIO pageant.
Such was the case for the 2010 Queen Marjorie Tahbone of Nome, who won the Miss Indian World title in Alberquerque, N.M., thus relinquishing her Miss WEIO crown to Elizabeth Rexford, the first runner up who will preside at next week’s WEIO events until a Miss 2011 WEIO queen is selected.
Only one Miss WEIO in the half century the competition has been held was not an Alaska Native.
In 1983, Miss White Mountain, Agatha Lupe Amos, an Apache from White Mountain, Ariz., won the WEIO title.
Amos met a WEIO queen at the National Congress of American Indians competition and decided to travel north to compete and study at the University of Alaska Fairbanks for a year.
“It was a really good experience,” said Amos, who traveled to several Outside pageants as Miss WEIO during her reign. “I was totally fascinated by the Native people of Alaska; we had a lot of commonality.”
She noted similarities in the Athabascan and Apache languages, clothing and beading styles.
The 1983 queen also was taken with the dedication and commitment of the WEIO athletes and how welcoming Alaskans were.
“I was really accepted,” recalled Amos, a community health director. “The people were fun and they opened their hearts to me. I still have (Alaska) friends on Facebook.”
Miss WEIO 1994, Princess Peter Raboff said she grew up going to the WEIO games, but it wasn’t until around age 14 that her interest in Native culture began to grow.
“I remember seeing the Miss WEIO contest and I was really enamored with these young women, older than me, doing something really cool, and being really proud of their culture. That initially got me interested in the Miss WEIO contest,” she said.
Like many of the Miss WEIO contestants, Princess spent a year preparing for the pageant, tanning caribou hides with her grandmother Kathryn Peter for her dress, which her mother, Adeline Peter-Raboff Kari, sewed and Princess beaded.
It was during that time she learned her mother won the Miss WEIO title, 30 years previously, in 1964.
“When she told me, I was a little surprised and really excited that she had done this as well,” Princess said.
“My mom is one of my role models with the work she has done with our culture and her collecting of Gwich’in history
“Overall it was a great honor to represent the World Eskimo Indian Olympics,” said Princess, who acts, directs, writes and is a member of the Screen Actors Guild, where she goes by Princess Lucaj.
A number of Miss WEIO queens queried about their experience as a Miss WEIO contestant/queen, replied how positively the experience influenced their lives.
“It is such an important event that reminds us of where we come from and who we can be,” said Courtney Carroll, Miss WEIO 2001.
Carroll went on to attain the Miss Alaska USA 2008 title and is pursuing an acting career in Los Angeles.
For Anastasia Cooke Hoffman of Bethel, Miss WEIO 1992, the best part of participating in the cultural pageant was sharing the experience with her mother Margaret, now deceased, and establishing memories she enjoys today.
“As Miss WEIO and then Miss NCAI, I took to heart the notion of being a representative of Native people and was deliberate about carrying myself in a respectful manner. This became a lasting principle that I believe has helped me accomplish much in life.”
This year, Miss WEIO contestants will be busy all week, making public appearances, interacting and talking with people at community functions and and in the evening at the WEIO games being held at the Carlson Center.
Approximately 25 former Miss WEIO queens are expected to attend many of the events and join in the Grand Entry Parade on Wednesday along with queen contestants, athletes and dancers, said Carmen Sears, who has been involved in WEIO pageant organization for a dozen years.
At 7:30 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday nights, 2011 Miss WEIO queen contestants and former Miss WEIO queens will greet the public at Meet and Mingle in the Pioneer Room at the Carlson Center.
At 8:30 p.m. Wednesday, queen contestants will perform in the talent competition. At 8:30 p.m. Thursday, queen contestants will answer impromptu questions.
Coronation of the 2011 Miss WEIO is slated to take place at 8 p.m. Friday in the Carlson arena.
This year’s queen contestants and former Miss WEIO queens also will participate in Saturday’s Golden Days Parade, riding in antique cars.